Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies, Oh My…

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I was reading an article once in National Geographic about the intelligence of swarms. It talked about how any large group – everything from bugs to birds to a herd of water-buffalo – can take on an intelligence much greater than that of the individual components of the group, and how scientists were applying some of the principals of swarms to solve human problems. Included in that story was an example of a trucking company that had developed a computer model for routing its trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species of ant known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.

Everybody get that? Let me repeat it: a trucking company developed a computer model for routing trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.

Okay, I like to pretend I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but my first reaction was, “What…?”

But here’s the thing: In the next paragraph, the writer of that article gave me something I could sink my teeth into. He gave me an analogy. He said that what the ants (and therefore the trucking company) were doing was like when someone goes into the forest to collect berries. Over time a path is worn in the ground to the best places to find berries.

Now that I understood.

Algorithms and ant pheromones? Not so much. Berries in the woods? Now you’re talking my language. And that’s kind of ironic, really, because, the language we’re talking about is pictures. Word pictures.

Writers are all trying to communicate a message, and to do so as clearly and effectively as possible. So what I want to talk about today is the power of metaphors, similes, and analogies. I’m not going to bore you with dictionary definitions of these terms; however, the essence of all three of them is that they describe something by comparing it to something else.

There are a lot of ways to do this, and a lot of reasons to do this. First of all, you might be trying to describe something unusual – Argentine ants and their pheromones, for instance – so you compare it to something people are more familiar with. This helps them understand what you’re saying.

On the other hand, you might be talking about something very basic, like writing, and want to jazz it up. Writing in and of itself isn’t terribly hard; you’ve all been doing it since the first or second grade. But you want to make it more interesting, to catch people’s attention, so you might describe it using cooking terms. You might say that writing a story is like cooking a meal, and that if all you give people is meat and potatoes, they certainly won’t go hungry, but nobody’s going to rave about your cooking, either.

If you want to present a meal that really satisfies, you’ve got to spice it up a little. You’ve got to throw is some oregano, some thyme, maybe a little parsley on the side. Well, okay, skip the side of parsley. Nobody likes that stuff. Using parsley as a garnish is like using cliches in your writing. Don’t waste people’s time.

Having said all that, I should also mention that you do have to be careful not to get carried away. As with herbs and spices in good cooking, you want to make sure you don’t over-do it. A little salt makes everything taste better; too much and it overpowers the meal. Everything in moderation.

Another advantage of using metaphors, similes, and analogies is this: they help people remember your keys points. By using one of these comparative devices, you are subliminally telling people what your most important points are by placing extra emphasis on them. That helps to reinforce those points in their minds.

By way of (an admittedly silly) example, let’s say you’re writing a magazine article about gardening, and you’re trying to describe the perfect soil to plant rosemary in. And say the perfect soil for planting rosemary is rich, but pale and very dry. Well, that’s not terribly evocative. But if you say it needs to be rich, pale, and very dry – kind of like Bill Gates… Hopefully you’ll get a laugh. But more importantly, you’ve reinforced your point by drawing extra attention to it, making it one people are more likely to remember.

The last thing you want to remember is to make sure your metaphors and similes are appropriate to the subject matter you’re trying to describe. I remember a friend once told me about someone who came to his writer’s group with a mystery story, and in this story the author had portrayed a particularly gruesome killing. There was a key scene where the police at the crime scene were trying to figure out ‘who done it,’ when suddenly the author described the fingerprints the detective found like this: “Detective Spade studied the bloody print on the victim’s slashed throat and couldn’t help but notice how much the swirling pattern reminded him of the tiny whirlpool his toilet made when it was flushed.” That doesn’t add anything; in fact, it’s a terrible distraction. It’s counter-productive. You have to make sure your comparative descriptions fit with the tone of the subject matter.

Metaphors. Similes. Analogies. You can call them word pictures if that makes you happy. But I would say that more important than what you call them or the differences between them, is remembering the power they have when used correctly. The power to clarify, the power to enliven, the power to reinforce. The power to make your writing really stand out – as if it were covered with Argentine ant pheromones.


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20 comments to Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies, Oh My…

  • Once I stopped laughing about the toilet fingerprint all could sing was —
    Metaphors, similes, and analogies, oh, my!
    Metaphors, similes, and ant pheromones, oh, my!
    (grins)
    Hey, it’s Saturday and I’m not at the lab. Gotta forgive me.

    Yellowbrick road tunes aside, that part about using them for emphasis, *and* limiting any and all of them is so very important. One of the biggest mistakes I see when reading young writers’ work is too many, and incorrect ones. The toilet one a new *bad* one for me.

    Thanks for this Edmund. Now I gotta go look up the difference between metaphors, similes, and analogies, because I’m suddenly blank. (Repeat of the Saturday comment.)

  • You got this one nailed. These three techniques are essential tools for a writer but also dangerous. If used properly, they can lift an ordinary scene to memorable heights. And, like your toilet example, they can flush away everything the writer has worked to create. :)

  • Huh… I like parsley… it’s kinda like…. olives and red wine, (not in the same glass) an acquired taste.. just like the ability to create metaphors, similes, and analogies, oh, my. You have to work at it to get it right…

    In fact that very metaphor from ‘The Wizard of OZ’ for something big and scary has fallen into general usage today. Which goes to prove that if you get a good one it has the power to immortalise you, and way deep down in our toes, that’s what we all want. C’mon now be honest!… well, the fortune to go with it would be nice too.

  • “The intelligence of swarms”

    This immediately brought to mind Wolf’s Law of Mob Psychology:

    (the average IQ of the people in the crowd) / (the number of people in the crowd) = the IQ of the crowd

  • Faith — That fingeprint analogy may well be the single worst one I ever heard, which is why it sticks with me so thoroughly.

    Stuart — You’re right; no point in any writer flushing away their hard work.

  • widdershins — My dad was the only one in the family who liked parsley. When we went out to dinner, everyone threw theirs on his plate. It was quite a sight.

    Wolf — I guess mobs and swarms are antithetical then. I have to admit, I never did see a swarm of locusts carrying torches and pitchforks…

  • Young_Writer

    I hate the simile “pale as a ghost”. It’s just so over used. Teachers say that every time a kid is sick and now it really gets me. Thanks for the article, though. It really helped!

  • Anything overused to the point of cliche is your enemy. Glad the piece helped.

  • Great point about distracting or overly numerous anaolgies/metaphors. I read something recently for a short story contest and every sentence was laced with these eye-catching metaphors. Some of them were very good, but used en masse it was like being bludgeoned by the writer’s cleverness: irritating and distracting. You got so caught up in trying to figure out whether the metaphor worked that you were utterly knocked out of the story. Using metaphors is like sewing seeds: they need space to grow… [OK, that was a simile] :)

  • Great piece, Ed. It actually reminded me of a little segment that appears occasionally in the NEW YORKER magazine. It’s called “Block that Metaphor” and it is usually an example of an extended mixed metaphor that recently appeared in print. They are uniformly bad and always hilarious. The toilet example is great and it brings up a point that occurs to me often when reading the work of young writers. It’s not just that we want to avoid bad metaphors, similes, and analogies, but also that we want our good ones to reinforce the tone of the scene in which they appear. If you’re writing a dark scene with suspense and gore, you probably don’t want your analogy to elicit images of baby ducks; and if you’re writing a light, comic passage, you probably don’t want to bring up, say, plague. Of course there are times when such contrarian analogies work, but my point is you need to be careful with tone as well as imagery. You want your prose to reinforce your narrative and character work, not undermine it.

  • Good point, A.J.; I’ve had the exact same reaction, even to published novels. Sometimes I wonder what the writer is more focused on: telling a good story or being clever.

  • You’re right, David; tone is absolutely vital. That’s why, for instance, it would be inappropriate for me to make an analogy describing a young college-age guy who had no success with the ladies by saying that he had as little success scoring as the New York Mets. The inappropriateness would stem from the fact that the Mets are simply tragic; there’s no comedy to be found there.

    Sigh…

  • This topic was like a breath of fresh air, it opened my eyes to a whole new world and when I read it I sat bolt upright. I think overusing analogies is like a car without a handbrake, once you get started there is no way of stopping.
    The trouble I have with coming up with appropriate similes is like a tree in spring; all shoots and no leaves. See?
    I once caught myself using an analogy to explain my simile in the same sentence, that is overuse.

  • If you want to present a meal that really satisfies, you’ve got to spice it up a little. You’ve got to throw is some oregano, some thyme, maybe a little parsley on the side.

    Garlic. It makes everything yummier!

  • Scion — Glad the essay was timely and helpful. People like to quote the bible and say “The truth will set you free.” But it won’t, not all by itself. That’s why the whole quote needs to be used: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Until you KNOW, not much is going to happen.

  • Great post Edmund, thank you! Metaphors, similes and analogies can be really powerful in fantasy where we often have to describe things that doesn’t exist and can be hard to visualize for the reader. The difficulty can be to find images that will be evocative for the reader AND be appropriate for the narrator. I’m currently working on a fantasy novel set in a post-apocalyptic earth and I often catch myself using comparisons my characters could never make for the simple reason we don’t share the same frame of reference. That complicates things a little 😉

  • Good catch, Maryse. A lot of writers let that kind of thing slip. I’ve even read stuff by pros and just had to shake my head in amazement that no one caught that kind of thing before it went to print.

  • What I really enjoy in writing, is when the figurative language (metaphors, similes, analogies and other devices) are character specific. For example, when a character with a nautical background compares things to sailing, boats, stars and other things familiar to them. Not only does it help you remember key points of the story, it also is a good way of reminding the reader of characters’ backgrounds. Done well, characters really come to life.

  • Agreed 100%, Dave. That’s something I always try to keep in mind when I’m writing.

  • Nice run-down on use of metaphors and similes. And also, yes… bloody fingerprints as toilet flush = metaphor fail.

    On a related note, it should be pointed out that another version of metaphor fail, though you allude to it, is the use of cliches. Cliches, in this sense, are over-used metaphors that have lost some of their potential narrative punch due to their overuse. (Although the word “cliche” gets overused a bit these days to mean any idea that is frequently used, but the original meaning of the word, specifically, was an overused phrase – especially one that was cast as a single printing plate.)